Ex-Stamford language leader sues schools claiming retaliation

Claims retaliation after raising concerns about English Language Learners system
Evan Simko-Bednarski

STAMFORD — The former head of the public schools’ English Language Learners program says the district retaliated against her for uncovering problems that led to a Department of Justice investigation, a suit she filed against the city’s school system alleges.

Kristina Lawson alleges that Hamilton and others in the district punished and ultimately demoted her after she raised concerns that the district was over-reporting the number of ELL-eligible students and misallocating program funds. She oversaw the program from July 2010 until January 2013.

Lawson claims Superintendent Winifred Hamilton threatened her, that her superiors demoted her and eventually reorganized the ELL program to eliminate her job.

“Stamford is a very tight community. You have a long career ahead of you. I’d really hate to see something happen to you that would make you unemployable,” then-deputy superintendent Hamilton told Lawson, her suit alleges.
Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Hamilton denied that Lawson’s demotion was retalitory, while declining to discuss the particulars of a pending lawsuit.

“It was not a performance issue at all,” Hamilton said of the elimination of Lawson’s position.

Lawson’s lawyer, Lewis Chimes, declined to comment further on any of the allegations, citing his client’s continued employment within the school system. She currently teaches at Stamford High School.

The problems with the ELL program that Lawson brought to light were possible overreporting of numbers of students eligible for the federally-subsidized classes, and misallocation of program funds. Lawson said the district’s criteria for eligibility were often inaccurate, and listed students with “Hispanic-sounding” last names and students from countries where English was spoken, such as Jamaica.

Lawson, citing the inaccurate counts, refused to certify the school district’s compliance with state and federal ELL regulations.

When she tried to bring her concerns to then-Superintendent Josh Starr, the complaint says, she was reprimanded by her immediate superior, then-Assistant Superintendent Mara Siladi.

Later, after Starr had resigned and Hamilton was serving as acting superintendent, the district began removing responsibilities from Lawson’s position, in a way that limited her contact with the State Board of Education as well as with principals within the district, her suit alleges.

Lawson had overseen the entire program from July 2010 to January 2013, but after the Department of Justice found the program’s deficiencies to be in violation of the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act in 2012, Lawson’s responsibilities went from being city-wide to covering a group of just four schools, according to the complaint.

Then, when Hamilton was installed as the new superintendent, she reorganized the district’s central office in January 2013, eliminating curriculum-based administrators in favor of assistant superintendents for secondary and elementary education. In this shift, Lawson’s ELL position was also eliminated.

Lawson was advised by her union that she could not file a grievance, because the position itself was eliminated, according to the complaint.

Reached by telephone Tuesday, Hamilton noted that six other central office administrators had their positions eliminated at the time as well.

“All in all, it was a restructuring that needed to happen,” she said.

The Department of Justice had already been looking into the Stamford Public Schools’ handling of the ELL program as early as November 2008, but parents were not informed of it until 2013. The justice department found the district was failing to provide adequate language instruction and using unqualified or uncertified instructors, violating the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act, according to documents The Advocate obtained at the time. The Department reached a settlement with the district just under a year ago.

Christopher Dellaselva, a city attorney representing Hamilton and the Board of Education, said he was still investigating the claims on Monday, and would likely seek clarification on the allegations before making a formal response.
“I believe some of her claims will turn on whether she exhausted her administrative remedies,” he said by telephone.

Lawson alleges breach of contract, defamation, violation of due process and the deprivation of the right to free speech, among other counts.

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